Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey
Story & Art: Akiko Higashimura
Translation: Jenny McKeon
Adaptation: Ysabet MacFarlane
Lettering & Layout: Lys Blakeslee
Publisher: Seven Seas Entertainment
Before Akiko Higashimura become a multi-award-winning mangaka (including an Eisner win this year!), she started out just like everyone else: a teen with dreams. Her autobiographical manga, Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey, published in English by Seven Seas Entertainment, gives fans a glimpse into those early days of art classes, college exams, disappointments, and the brazen faith that fuels the truly motivated.
Higashimura opens her narrative with a little background into her childhood character, emphasizing her voracious consumption of manga, especially shojo manga, and her perhaps foolhardy notion that she was already talented enough, in middle school, to make her manga debut and become rich and famous. This self-assured attitude follows her into high school, where she is generally praised by her art teacher, and where she chooses to let her studies slip because she is just so confident that she will be able to get by on her art alone.
Young Akiko’s classmate, Futami-san, hits her with the brutal truth, though: you can’t get very far without putting in the work. Futami is determined to go to art school, and she works really hard at improving, even attending art lessons outside of school. She suggests that Akiko (known by her surname, Hayashi, to most people at this point) join her in these lessons, and when Akiko brings it up to her high school art teacher, he seems hesitant to give his full recommendation. When she finally meets this mysterious instructor whose home is tucked away in the middle of nowhere, however, she begins to understand that reluctant reaction.
Hidaka Kenzou is not an easy guy to get along with. He’s not only a strict teacher, but a merciless one, heaping criticism on every student regardless of their age, gender, or skill level. Sensei, as Akiko calls him, is a truly enigmatic figure, a man who never went to art school himself but who takes mastery of the medium very seriously. Though it takes her a while to realize it, his tough tutelage is exactly what Akiko needs, considering her laissez-faire attitude toward her future would have certainly landed her nowhere.
As the lessons pass, the two begin to work together toward Akiko’s college applications and the rigorous testing and portfolio reviews that constitute admission to art school. Akiko’s struggle to appease her task-master teacher falls away as she begins to see how hard it can be to make it in the art world. This evolution from laid-back, lazy student with full confidence in herself to hard-working, driven artist is seamlessly rendered, providing insight for young readers into how important it is to place effort above witless talent.
It’s an interesting dichotomy, knowing as a reader that Higashimura has obviously had a successful enough career to be published and lauded, but also watching her early struggles to reach that point. Her artwork, always lovely and fluid, full of effortless comedic gesture, is enhanced by the knowledge that she can draw from life just as deftly. And as always, she is able to balance what is sure to be a heartfelt and genuine story of struggle and admiration for her teacher with a no-holds-barred slapstick sense of humor. Higashimura is not afraid to make fun of herself, and not afraid to show those parts of her story that are less than flattering.
It has been a privilege, in these past couple of years, to see non-fiction manga — and especially autobiographical works — making it into English translation. What was previously the purview of male mangaka published by prestige publishers has now opened up to the stories of women in their everyday lives, whether it be focused on their work, their relationships, or their mental health struggles. Blank Canvas is another excellent addition to this ever-growing body of autobio manga, recommended for Higashimura’s fans, but also for anyone who has ever striven toward a goal. It would be a particularly beneficial read for teens who are thinking of pursuing art themselves, as both an inspiration and a reality check. The series, which is four volumes long, is available through Seven Seas Entertainment. The second volume will be out August 27th, and the series is slated to be complete by March of 2020.